Saint Mary Magdalene
By Patricia Almeida-Greene
Throughout the centuries, the true identity of Mary Magdalene has been a subject of controversy among theologians. In the New Testament a woman named Mary is mentioned on three occasions: Mary from whom seven demons were cast out, the woman who would wash the feet of Jesus with her tears, and Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. In the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great said he believed all were the same woman, which has generally been held by Western Christianity tradition. The Eastern position taught that the Gospels did not claim these women to be the same person. In 1969, the Vatican officially adopted the Eastern position thus separating Luke's sinful woman, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.
Very little is truly known about Mary Magdalene. She was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. St. Luke (8:2) and St. Mark (16:9) depict her as the woman from whom Jesus cleansed seven demons. After this conversion she became one of Jesus' most faithful followers witnessing his final moments by bravely standing at His cross during the Crucifixion (Mt 27:5-6) (Mark 15:40) (John 19:25).
On Easter morning, Mary brought ointment to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body. She was met by an angel, who revealed that Christ had risen. Finding the tomb empty, she became the first witness of the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene quickly proclaimed the news of the miracle to the apostles. They were skeptical but returned to the empty tomb. The apostles then departed leaving a forlorn Mary Magdalene by herself. Her faith and perseverance was rewarded. She was the first person to whom the Risen Christ appeared (Mt28:9) (Mark16:9) (John20:1-8). This great gift distinguished her as the “apostle to the apostles.”
After the Resurrection there is no mention of Mary Magdalene in the Bible. According to Western legend, Mary with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus traveled by boat to France. They evangelized and converted the whole region. She then became a hermit, living the remainder of her years as a penitent. When she died, French tradition says that her body was carried by angels into the oratory of St. Maximinus and that her relics, her head, lies in the Church of La Sainte-Baume, which is still the center of pilgrimages. Eastern legend holds that Mary Magdalene traveled to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin Mary and apostle John, where she later died and was buried. Her relics were later transferred to Constantinople.
Mary's feast day is celebrated on July 22 by the Greek and Roman Catholic Church as the penitent woman to whom the Risen Christ first appeared. In art she is often depicted holding a jar of ointment, a symbol of a penitent and because she was a Myrrh bearer, going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is the patron of penitent sinners (especially women), converts, perfume makers, hair stylists and people ridiculed for their piety.
Despite all the controversy concerning the true identity, character, and role of Mary Magdalene she remains a significant inspiration to this day. Foremost, she is the epitome of the penitent sinner who renounced sin for a life in Christ. She is the symbol of hope for all sinners. As with Mary, when we are truly sorry for our sins no matter how horrible they may be, the merciful love of Christ forgives us. We seek and receive pardon through the sacrament of Reconciliation. We are healed from the death of sin and given true life in Jesus.
Mary is also known for her grateful and generous heart. In thanksgiving she followed Jesus and his apostles and ministered to their needs. We are called to follow Jesus with the same great love by serving Him and the Church. We, unlike Mary, are presented with a tremendous number of ways to serve the Lord. Giving freely and generously of our time, talents and treasure through various parish ministries is a true sign of a loving disciple. We. like Mary, are able to serve the Lord and graciously welcome and care for His people. This could be as simple as extending a warm, genuine welcome at the Church door to serving those in need by supporting and volunteering time to the parish food pantry. The opportunities for stewardship are limitless. By searching our hearts we can discover how we too can fulfill our discipleship to God, the Church and our fellow man.
Mary also teaches perseverance in faith. Her deep faith and devotion brought her to the empty tomb where she remained alone and distressed. Her belief was ultimately rewarded by the return of Christ to her on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene inspires us to seek the Lord always and believe in Him even though at times we feel he has abandoned us. With unwavering trust we should continue to believe through our sorrows and doubt. We may not always feel the presence of God but we should never doubt that He is with us. He is always listening to us in our joys and our unhappiness. When we feel sad and alone our faith in God can sustain us. Hopefully one day we will be rewarded as Mary Magdalene and come face to face with the Risen Christ.
By bravely standing at the foot of the cross, Mary Magdalene teaches us courage. She knew the potential consequences of her actions but that did not deter her. She was willing to risk her life for her faith. When the apostles found it difficult to believe Mary about the Risen Christ, she kept her faith. Today we are blessed to be able to practice our faith freely and profess it to others. It is easy to be Catholic when we are in a church or other circumstances with fellow Catholics, but are we brave enough to profess our faith to non-believers? When we are at our job site and our co-workers say something negative about our faith, are we brave enough to defend it? Do we have the fortitude to stand up for our beliefs or are we afraid of ridicule or being ostracized? How do we react when others poke fun at our character, piety or values? Are we steadfast and proud or submissive and embarrassed? We look to Mary for the courage to remain unwavering in what we truly believe despite persecution form others.
During her final years, Mary led a life of contemplative prayer. She reminds us of the importance of spending time in conversation with God — not only speaking to Him but listening to Him with our hearts as well. Prayer is the cornerstone in our relationship with God.
Mary Magdalene is one of the most famous sinners turned saint. By emulating her we can become a true penitent, a devout follower of Jesus; serving Him, the Church and others with a grateful and generous heart, and be steadfast and courageous in our faith.